Of Luddites and Spin Doctors

Tom Philpott puts together a nice review of Michael Specter’s “Denialism” and makes some really solid points.

In his intro, Specter sets up the defining focus of the book. He contrasts the “rigorous and open-minded skepticism of science” with “the inflexible certainty of ideological commitment” (i.e., “denialism”). Already, we’re on thin intellectual ice; Specter evidently believes in a pure science, one that exists completely apart from ideology. In Gibbon’s phrasing, he’s defending a science as “she descended from Heaven [read: the Enlightenment], arrayed in her native purity.”

According to Denialism, organic farming threatens millions in Africa. According to the UN, not so much. But science doesn’t exist in an ideal state. Like the arts, it lives on its patrons—and their interests shape its contours. Here in the United States, public funding for universities and research has plummeted since the Reagan era. Into that void have stepped monied interests—corporations more inclined to finance the generation of proprietary knowledge than the sort of pure science Specter so values. (Emphasis added)

There is an interesting phenomena in American main stream opinion, where otherwise smart writers are blinded by claims of technological utopia. The basic frame of Denialism and other similar tracts everybody that anybody opposes any particular technological application is ignorant and scared and their opinions are invalid.

And sometimes that frame is correct, but other times a new technology’s benefits are nothing but the fabrications of public relations professionals. Or in the case of GMOs and the developing world they’re clearly not appropriate to the nature of the problem. Africa needs local, affordable and sustainable solutions, not foreign laboratory made, absurdly expensive and likely temporary solutions.

Technology can help us, but only if we evaluate it’s benefits critically. This issue is going to come up again, and again in the 21st Century let’s develop a healthy and rational skepticism.


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